SCOTLAND'S further education colleges are warning they face resignations from their boards of management if the Government insists on pushing through a new code of conduct governing board members.
They also fear the code will compound the difficulties many are already facing in recruiting new members with sufficient experience and expertise, at the very time when the Scottish Further Education Funding Council is urging college boards to show greater professional leadership.
The Association of Scottish Colleges is now seeking a meeting with Wendy Alexander, Lifelong Learning Minister, to protest about the new rules, which are set out in the Ethical Standards in Public Life, Etc (Scotland) Act 2000, designed to ensure high standards of conduct.
The association makes it clear colleges are not trying to evade scrutiny under the Act and are happy to submit to the Standards Commission which the legislation has set up. But boards are up in arms at the extent of the information members are expected to provide in a register of interests. They will have to declare not only their own earnings and any shareholdings but financial and non-financial interests of spouses, partners and family, including such assets as property owned other than their main residence.
Underlying this concern is a long-standing resentment that board members are expected to give of their time unpaid and now face what they regard as an extensive invasion of their privacy.
"This will be such a turn-off to anyone with private means or business interests - and we are specifically required to find such people to serve on boards," Tom Kelly, the ASC's chief officer, says. "They may well conclude that it's a price not worth payig."
Mr Kelly adds: "You can imagine a college approaching somebody and asking him or her to be a board member which means they will be unpaid, required to attend board meetings in the evenings, be involved in training awaydays probably at weekends, take on committee work and become almost part-time professionals in the management of the college - and by the way here's around 50 things about your private circumstances which you need to register. It's not exactly an enticing package."
The problem has arisen because the ethical standards Act lumps FE colleges with a range of quangos in a "one size fits all" approach. Universities and local enterprise companies are being treated separately and the association also wants a code for FE boards, which is provided for in the Act.
Mr Kelly says a specific FE code would simply require disclosure of interests and withdrawal from any discussion which could give rise to a conflict of interest. Most colleges already keep a register of board members' interests and the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992 actually requires interests to be declared.
A legal expert has warned, however, that it is vital board members are familiar with the terms of the ethical standards Act. Writing in Broadcast, the journal of the Scottish Further Education Unit, Brenda Scott, a partner with Edinburgh solicitors Brodies, says a "high degree of probity, integrity and accountability, high degree of disclosure of private affairs and high degree of sanctions are now part and parcel of being a board member.
"They need to take up the role with their eyes wide open. Otherwise, the old adage that ignorance of the law is no excuse will gain greater usage."